Mental Health

To Recover From Trauma, Kids Follow Lead Of Adults

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Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon talks with trauma specialist Dr. Elaine Ducharme in Connecticut about how to psychologically recover from events like the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn. Ducharme says children recovering from trauma should avoid the news, and should try to find routine again.


And as the investigation into the shootings in Newtown continues, there is a parallel effort going on of equal, perhaps even paramount, importance. The parents and teachers in the community are already working to try to ease the trauma that is being experienced by their children. That difficult and delicate journey is just beginning. Yesterday, we reached Dr. Elaine Ducharme. She's a clinical psychologist and a trauma specialist in Glastonbury, Connecticut.

So what do you do you first, as a professional or as a parent?

DR. ELAINE DUCHARME: Wow. You know, I think one of the first things is, is try and get our own emotions under control. It's just stopping for a minute and taking a deep breath, and trying to remember that this isn't what life is all about; that these are still anomalies.

SIMON: I want to ask you about the children who were there - children in that school, children who were in that community. What do you do besides hold them close?

DUCHARME: Well, I think number one, that's probably one of the first things you do, is hold them close. You want to reassure them that they are safe now. That is probably one of the most critical things. A lot of kids aren't sure whether it's over or not. And one of the problems is, it's - the normal reaction is, we all want to know more and more about what's happening. So parents often will keep the radio or the television on. For the very young ones, especially, they don't have the same sense of time that we have. And if they see it happening several times on television, they don't always get that it's just a repeat of what we already saw, and what happened. They may think that it's happening over and over again.

I mean, one of things that's helpful - and I think parents need to remember this - is that kids really are resilient. And if parents can somehow come to terms with this, can find a way of containing themselves and helping the kids see that yes, there are still some very normal things that are going to happen every day - even though this was a very not normal thing that happened - the kids are going to follow the parents. So if the parents are able to somehow figure out how to handle it, the kids will follow suit.

SIMON: So getting back into some routine is important.

DUCHARME: Yes, it really is. I mean, I think we may want to excuse the younger kids - and maybe all kids - from some of the typical chores; you know, just letting some things go for a day or so, as they kind of deal with their feelings or their thoughts; and we talk about it, or they draw about it. But then after a day or two, we do want to get them into some sort of routine.

SIMON: You mentioned drawing together.


SIMON: I think for a lot of us who know young kids, drawing is a portal to a lot.

DUCHARME: It truly is. You know, a lot of these kids don't have words to describe this. They're going to remember things - like sounds and smells - besides just the visual impact. But for some of the younger children, being able to draw about it - it's really a great way of helping kids express what they're feeling; and maybe to identify what they saw because sometimes, they can't tell you what they saw but when they draw it, it becomes much more clear.

SIMON: Do we have to be alert for this rush of attention in the first few days and weeks, and then kids seem all right; and the tail is off and...

DUCHARME: Well, I think the thing is that we expect certain things are going to happen. And so, I mean, the normal response to trauma, the kids are going to - probably, some of them are going to have some nightmares for awhile; we may see some regressive behaviors - kids starting to wet the bed again, or suck their thumb, having toileting accidents even during the day; being afraid to have mom or dad leave for work. Any of those things are going to be normal.

And the problem is if it continues, you know, and several weeks from now, some kids are still having these problems. So we want parents to be alert for signs of real depression, ongoing anxiety. If these things aren't clearing up within a couple of weeks, that's when people are going to want to maybe seek the help of a mental health professional, a psychologist. But we have to really reassure them that these are still very isolated incidents; and that we, as parents, are going to keep them safe.

SIMON: Dr. Elaine Ducharme - clinical psychologist and trauma specialist in Glastonbury, Connecticut. Thanks very much for being with us.

DUCHARME: You're welcome.


SIMON: And you're listening to NPR News.


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